BY Rajendra Prasad Adhikary
United Nation High Seas Treaty can be crucial for regional water resource development
Over a hundred countries worldwide have recently signed the United Nations High Seas Treaty. This treaty is a further development of the International Biodiversity Convention, held in Canada in December 2022, with the objective of protecting at least 30% of land and sea territory by the end of 2030 to restore biodiversity in the designated areas. As a signatory to the treaty, Nepal can also benefit from the resources of the high seas. Among the various benefits expected to be extracted and distributed among the treaty partners, the regular monsoon rains generated from the sea's surface are an important national aspect, primarily because Nepal’s economy is dominated by livelihoods based on regional monsoon rains.
As the temperature of sea surface water plays a critical role in regulating the global climate, the consistently increasing sea surface temperature has had a significant impact on the regional monsoon wind circulation. This alteration has led to changes in the arrival schedule, distribution, and intensity of rainfall. Erratic monsoon rains have resulted in decreased crop yield, ultimately affecting the livelihood of farmers in particular and national and regional economic growth in general.
Periodic monsoon rains and snow pack deposits on the Hindu Kush Himalaya, stretching from Myanmar in the east to Afghanistan in the west, are the prime source of freshwater in this region of Asia. These sources persistently feed not only the rivers of Himalayan origin but also numerous wetlands and freshwater springs that mountain and flat land communities depend on for drinking, food security, hydropower, and various other water uses. The interconnectivity between the Hindu Kush Himalayas and sea water surface is substantiated by blowing monsoon winds that connect marine and highland mountain peaks, creating a freshwater generating system in this region home to one of the world's highest populations.
As the sea surface temperature continues to rise due to global warming, the monsoon wind circulation from sea to land has been affected. This alteration has resulted in high altitude heat waves triggering frequent avalanches, devastating floods, inundation, landslides and widespread forest fires with prolonged drought. Such disharmonious connectivity between the highland and sea surface has hit the regional freshwater source hard, transforming snow-packed mountains from a freshwater tower of Asia into a water-disastrous zone - too much water brought in by frequent floods, prolonged droughts with too little water, and too much dirty water collected in environmentally degraded wetlands.
On top of the prevailing regional monsoon climate crises, there are several water use conflicts between neighbouring nations which has resulted in unutilised river flows without any storage projects to counter the adversaries of heat waves generated by climate change impacts. In the absence of high-volume water storage projects across transboundary rivers, there can neither be enhancement of climate crisis mitigation nor adaptation programs at the national and regional levels. The remedial measures to address the impact of climate change are often executed by supplying stored water during prolonged heat and wide-gapped rainfall wherever it is deemed urgent.
The water sharing debate between India and Pakistan, and Bangladesh and India took a long time to settle. With a yearly volume of 225 billion cubic metres of fresh water flowing mostly unutilised through the River Koshi, Karnali, Gandaki, and Mahakali of Nepal to the Ganges of India, there are numerous possibilities of harnessing the benefits of water in the form of energy, drinking water, food security, and various other environmental uses to distribute economic benefits for all the poverty-stricken people residing in this region of the globe. However, in the absence of firm political commitment shown by the political leaders, the large-scale economic benefit-sharing water resources project proposed on Koshi and Mahakali rivers are in limbo. As such mega projects require investment from multinational banks, and the surplus benefit shares have to be marketed in several neighbouring countries, regional solidarity with a consensus of equitability based on international norms are preconditions of the Himalayan water use regional scheme.
At this point, it is worth highlighting the vital role that external mediators such as the World Bank can play in resolving complex issues surrounding river water benefit sharing through the use of scientific and transparent modern techniques that are acceptable to both nations. The Indus River Treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan and the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty between India and Bangladesh, both mediated by the World Bank, are regarded as successful and far-sighted water resources treaties. The technical approach used by the World Bank has been attributed to the scientific method adopted in water flow accounting, which takes into consideration historical data and other scientifically measurable parameters. Despite the recent disagreements between India and Pakistan regarding the 1960 water sharing agreement, the World Bank's approach has been successful for over 60 years.
In the face of the ongoing water resources crisis caused by the impacts of global climate change, there is a need for a redefinition of water resource utilisation. A new concept should include a well-defined strategy that scientifically accounts for river flow and seasonal variations in water quantity using climate change indices. The establishment of independent academic institutions that deal with all scientific parameters in a timely and unbiased manner, without political intervention, can provide solutions to the underutilisation of regional water resources and promote economic growth. The waters of the Himalayan front, when utilised through project mode, have the potential to uplift the socioeconomic life of the people, alleviate hunger, conserve biodiversity, and provide a clean and green environment while generating adequate renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Despite the fact that countries have been utilising the water resources from these conflict-prone rivers in basic and primitive ways to benefit themselves locally, it is crucial to establish regional-scale green economic development initiatives that utilise the massive quantity of water available with the help of international development banks. Such initiatives are necessary to alleviate the long-standing poverty of the people in the region and to contribute to the global call for climate crisis adaptation strategies.
The current approach of multinational investment banks, including the World Bank, falls short in addressing regional poverty in a holistic manner, particularly in the Himalayan region where a larger population depends on these rivers. Given the extensive river networks of Himalayan origin, the abundance of water during the monsoon period, and viable regional market consumption, the execution of long-awaited mega projects with water-retaining high dams across Himalayan rivers would be of great value in harnessing water resources and getting quick returns on investment due to flourishing regional market connectivity in the global network of business. Such large-scale water resource projects have the potential to avoid floods and inundations by holding water during the monsoon season. In this way, they are the scientific means to counteract and mitigate the impacts of climate change on water resources, thereby eradicating the condition of too much, too little, and too dirty water supply and providing controlled water supply wherever and whenever needed.
The appointment of Ajay Banga, an Indian-born American business executive, to a leadership position at the World Bank as an expert in climate change impacts and mitigation, presents a unique opportunity for the region. Banga's deep connection with the economically deprived people in the region, along with his understanding of regional politics and extensive experience in the banking sector, particularly in mobilising public and private sectors to address urgent climate crisis needs, may prove to be invaluable in launching large-scale water resource projects across trans-boundary rivers. Such projects could provide an economic boost to the region, which has been severely impacted by the effects of climate change.
Investment by multinational banks in water resources projects in India can have a significant impact on regional development and climate change mitigation efforts. With over 15,000 kilometres of border shared with neighbouring countries and more than 7,000 kilometres of coastal length with the sea, such projects can cater to the needs of the region and contribute to the transition of the Indian economy from a fossil fuel-based model to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly one. This transition would also help to lower regional emissions and stabilise the growing sea surface temperature, thereby restoring the habitats of diverse marine creatures as envisioned by the United Nations High Seas Treaty.
(Adhikari is an engineer and served Nepal government in various high level capacities.)